It’s hard to ignore the security that surrounds the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's communications center. It sits atop a hill in Monterey Park behind a tall fence and inside a building with thick concrete walls and no windows.
Inside, dispatchers don headsets and deploy deputies from the 10,000-strong force across the nearly 5,000 square miles that comprise L.A. County. It's impressive until someone shows you the technological guts of the operation.
The room is mostly silent expect for the humming of the fans that keep it cool - and a nearly constant clicking sound.
"Those are mechanical switches that are activated with each one of those radio calls," said Dean Gialamas, director of the sheriff’s technology and support division.
The analog dispatch system is the most glaring example of the technological problems facing the largest sheriff’s agency in the country. Spare parts for the dispatch system aren't even manufactured anymore - the department has to make them.
Not only are the department's thousands of computers antiquated, but they're not interconnected, said Gialamas.
"When you look at our IT systems across our department, we have so many different systems," he said.
"All of our staff has become very creative … they come up with their own systems," added Gialamas.
Some records on use of force aren't even in electronic form – they're on paper, he said.
When he became the department's top official three years ago, Sheriff Jim McDonnell had a to-do list of reforms that included reducing violence in the jails and providing more humane treatment for mentally ill people who end up in jail. But to achieve measurable results, he needs good data. And McDonnell acknowledges that he's not getting it.
"You potentially have 100 different systems capturing crime data information, risk management information and other information," he said.
Serious flaws in the sheriff’s data systems first came to light this summer, when county Inspector General Max Huntsman found the department was tracking jail violence using incompatible types of software.
In some cases, multiple incidents were counted as one – a serious problem for a department with a history of deputy-on-inmate violence.
McDonnell concedes that for a long time department leaders spent money on what they saw as more important things: more deputies, more patrol cars and new station houses.
"To be very candid, [modernizing the computer systems] has not been a priority for many years," McDonnell said.
Gialamas said the department is making progress.
Its office of technology planning is adding 22 people and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has approved funding for two big projects: $25 million to computerize the ancient dispatch system and $35 million to modernize the digital jail management system.
But Gialamas acknowledges there's a lot more to do – the department needs to set up systems to store and manage crime and personnel data – and it needs to get all of the sheriff's various computer networks talking to each other.
Far behind the LAPD
The region's other large law enforcement agency, the LAPD, was forced to embrace big data in 2000 when it reached a settlement with the federal Department of Justice.
As part of reforms aimed at reducing racialized policing and excessive use of force, the LAPD had to start documenting all car stops, including the race of the driver. It also created a computerized system to track performance evaluations, complaints and other data on officers, said attorney Gerry Chaleff, a former police commissioner who oversaw the reforms at the LAPD.
"It gave us a better sense of ... which employees might have risk management issues," he said. "It allowed us to see trends with ... officer-involved shootings and other uses of force."
The tracking system is now a model for the country.
"It put the department on the road to the fact that we had to collect data, we had to analyze data and we had to be transparent about it," said Chaleff, who now advises police departments around the country on consent decrees.
The sheriff’s department was never really put on that road – although it’s now collecting new data under a similar reform agreement with the federal justice department designed to improve mental health care inside jails.
Watchdog groups are frustrated that when it comes to big data, the sheriff's department is so far behind the LAPD.
"If McDonnell is serious about changing the department, he’d invest in technology," said Michelle Infante of the Coalition to End Sheriff's Violence.
"They put out the statistics they want people to know and what they don’t want you to know they don’t put out," she said. "The department is not being clear, it’s not being honest."
McDonnell says while the department struggles with technology, it never lies about the data it has.
Kim McGill of the Youth Justice coalition says the department's computer troubles can lead to bad policies.
"If we have no data or bad data, then we’re really legislating and policing by emotion," McGill said. "And emotion unfortunately is often driven by race, class, gender and age."
The sheriff’s civilian oversight commission also has expressed concerns about data, saying to increase public trust, the sheriff should release more data, and in a timely fashion.
J.P. Harris, a former sheriff’s lieutenant who sits on the civilian panel, agrees that the department needs to upgrade its information technology so it can get a better handle on its data.
"If you don’t measure it, you’re not going to know what’s going on," he said at a recent meeting.